For most, collecting vintage computers eventually becomes more of a lifestyle then a hobby. Sure, those in control of themselves can sometimes keep a collection limited in scope and size, but for most of us, this is a pastime that sticks to you. If you get into this hobby, make sure you have lots of space!
My collection, for instance, started out as a trip down memory lane. I simply wanted to gather together the various machines that I had played or worked with in my youth. Apples, Ataris and IBM PCs were at the top of my list with other machines that I'd never really used but had lusted for, such as Altairs and IMSAIs finding their way on to the list as well.
Eventually, of course, I acquired many of these machines. On the way I encountered several other machines that I just couldn't pass up for one reason or another. I now have more then 15 complete machines, a bunch of peripherals such as terminals and printers and several hundred pounds of literature in my ever growing collection.
How to collect old computers:
If you are interested in older computers you likely have a reason. Perhaps you are nostalgic for your past computing experiences, maybe you recognize the historical importance of various machines or maybe you've worked for a particular company and want to collect their obsolete gear. I could think of a dozen other reasons, but the end result is that your interest is going to be in some portion of the computer spectrum.
That should become your starting point. You will now want to focus on the resources that best suit your collecting style and in the areas that offer the biggest chances for success.
For instance, if you are interested in home computers from the early 80s (such as the Apple ][, Atari 800, Commodore 64, TI 99/4a etc.) you're best resources are going to be places where old home electronics tend to reside. Local charity stores (Salvation Army, for instance), flea markets and garage sales might still yield the rare gem in these machines.
If instead you are interested in older business machines (say PDP-8, HP, IBM or other workstation, workgroup, mini or mainframe equipment) you will need to shift your search to electronic salvage operations, or organizational "garage sales." The latter are when large institutions such as government agencies, schools or hospitals clean out their closets and auction or sell the old stuff. Even today you can still find some fine old systems this way. You can, if you're so inclined, also try to contact the IT departments at these types of places and ask them if any help is needed. Just be nice to them! Pestering sources of vintage computers only results in more destroyed machines.
The bottom line is obvious. Seek old machines where they once resided or where they are most likely to have migrated to.
Auction sites do provide an excellent source of machines, but at a price. Where you might be able to get an old Apple ][+ for $25 or less from a garage sale, you'll be hard pressed to see one go for less than $75 on eBay and you'll then have to pay to ship it. On the other hand, many items that you'd otherwise never see are available at the click of a mouse. As a general rule, eBay has a higher volume of items while the Vintage Computer Marketplace usually has better pricing.
Although it's probably obvious to the eBay veteran, the following advice is something to consider before jumping into eBay collecting:
- Know what you are bidding on - research both the type of machine you are considering and the specific machine in the auction. Ask the seller pointed questions and, if possible, for more pictures, more detailed descriptions or whatever. Most sellers are more than happy to comply.
- Consider the feedback of the seller - Low or zero feedback sellers may very well be honest, upstanding eBayers, but your odds are far better when dealing with a seller with an established reputation. Read the feedback comments from previous buyers and make sure that your seller doesn't have a reputation for bad products or service.
- Be wary of poorly described items - Fuzzy pictures and terse descriptions are often a sign of a dud in camouflage. Be extra careful when you see these types of auctions.
Of course, bargains CAN be had on eBay if you are sharp. Look for items that are incorrectly categorized (you can often find vintage computers, usually found under the Vintage or Vintage Apple categories, under the Other category on eBay, for instance) or that are offered with a good buy-it-now price. Both are often opportunities to beat the competition.
Off peak auctions are also a way to find some bargains. Summer time tends to be slow on eBay (maybe because of all of the garage sales?) so you'll see fewer bidders on coveted items then. You'll also get less competition on auctions that end at a late hour since many bidders like to "snipe" - i.e. bid at the last minute.
However you build your collection you're sure to have fun with it. Just be sure you also build an addition to your house as well!